|Paylocity founder Steve Sarowitz, a member of the Baha'i faith, outside the Baha'i Temple in Wilmette. Turned to Baha'i after a trip to Akko, Israel — the “spiritual center” of the religion. | Michelle Kanaar / Sun-Times|
Steve Sarowitz, 51, Chicago tech entrepreneur, Paylocity founder, philanthropist, raised Jewish, now Baha’i, which teaches there’s “essentially one faith being revealed over the history of humanity.”
Raised in Homewood as a Reform Jew.
“I had a pleasant upbringing in the Jewish faith . . . We were the three-day-a-year Jews.”
“Wasn’t passionate” about his religion, but “I was always a believer in God.”
When he was a baby, his mother had a “life-after-death experience” in which she said she “went through a tunnel,” saw flashbacks and was asked by God whether she wanted to stay there or resume her life.
“I always believed in God ’cause my mom told me she talked to Him.”
Still, growing up, he didn’t “think about religion that much . . . I was thinking about everything else . . . sports . . . girls.”
To the extent he contemplated faith, wondered: “Are the Jews right and the Christians wrong, or are the Christians right and the Jews wrong, or maybe the Muslims are right?”
First encountered the Baha’i religion — which today, according to estimates, has at least five million adherents, many in the Middle East — while a student at the University of Illinois.
He went to the Jewish student center during a presentation on “progressive revelation,” learned about “the Baha’i vision that . . . one God sent all the messengers, all the founders of all the great faiths with the same essential message, which is to love God and love thy neighbor and that the differences” among the major religions “were rather minor and that it was, in fact, one faith being revealed over the entire history of humanity.
“The idea of unity and continuity . . . a single reality . . . made sense to me right away,” though he didn’t become Baha’i yet.
He and his wife raised their kids Jewish, but he revisited the Baha’i faith years later when a running buddy asked him to join a Baha’i “study group.”
Wealthier after Paylocity, the human resources and payroll provider, went public in 2014, decided to do “a lot more” philanthropy and heard about a plan to put a community center for Arab and Jewish kids in Akko, Israel — the “spiritual center” of the Baha’i religion, to which the faithful worldwide face during daily prayers.
Sarowitz considered it a sign and helped, visiting Akko and the shrine of Baha’u’llah, who died in 1892 and is viewed by the faithful as the “latest” of God’s “divine educators” — among them Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad.
“I had a profound spiritual transformation . . . I was already a Baha’i in my heart, but I walked out teaching the Baha’i faith.”
“The main tenet, the most overriding value in the Baha’i faith, is unity, unity of religion, unity of mankind. It’s trying to take away all the things that divide us . . . getting rid of all prejudices . . . sexism, racism, nationalism. Baha’u’llah had a beautiful quote, he said the earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.”
How often do members go to services?
But there’s a minimum of one “obligatory” prayer to be said daily.
Baha’i members in individual towns in the Chicago area get together for a “feast” — to pray together, eat together, handle “community business” — every 19 days, the length of a month in the Baha’i calendar.
There are just a handful of Baha’i temples around the world, including one in the United States — in Wilmette, along Sheridan Road.
The Baha’i faith has long faced persecution in the Middle East, including Iran, was an early voice in the 19th and 20th centuries for women’s rights and against racism.
“Service is part and parcel” to the faith.
Sarowitz has helped fund community centers in minority neighborhoods in Chicago and is bankrolling a documentary about the Bab, who is considered a prophet and “heralded” Baha’u’llah.
Sarowitz’s great-uncle fought for Israel’s independence with Menachem Begin, who later was Israel’s prime minister.
More than 20 family members were killed in the Holocaust.
“Honesty is the foundation of all virtues.”
“God doesn’t look like anything to me . . . We can only know God as his attributes, so God is kindness, God is love . . . charity, philanthropy . . . truth, wisdom.”
Baha’i followers are “are peace lovers” but not necessarily “pacifists” — so while they work for peace, there can be a “use of war, but it should be very limited.”
“I find our message resonates particularly with millennials, who are really into the oneness of humankind.”
In the Baha’i faith, “there is no hierarchy, so I’m not above or below anybody.”